Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Last Thoughts on Social Capital (for now)

Even the past few weeks I have been examining a range of criticisms of social capital and I think the eight criticisms posted has demonstrated that concept of social capital has a number of serious weaknesses. The nature of its weakness is not that it is based on fallacious interpretations or incorrect descriptions but rather that it produces descriptions that retain unresolved tensions. Though perhaps like suspension bridges, such tensions are responsible for the concept’s strengths, indeed, Schuller, Baron and Field (2000) argue that weaknesses such as its definitional diversity and extreme versatility can in some contexts become strengths (Schuller, Baron and Field 2000: 24-25). They conclude that the concept is a useful heuristic and can help, in particular, in reinserting value into social science discourse, overcome disciplinary boundaries and provide a link between the micro, meso and macro levels of analysis. While these assertions are supported with some examples of empirical research, such claims are still rather vague and apply equally to social networks explanations, which at least have the benefits of clearer methods of analysis.

An earlier post began with a quote from Adler and Kwon, and it would be unfair to these authors not to mention that they concluded their review of the concept with a note of caution:
There does not, as yet, seem to be anything resembling a rigorous theory or metatheory that can incorporate the strengths of the existing, competing theories and transcend their respective limitations (Adler and Kwom 2002: 34)
As of 2012, a rigorous theory or metatheory has yet to materialise, yet the concept of social capital continues its expansion in the academic and practitioner discourse. The reason for this is clear – the collective credibility of the research is good, based in turn on canonical works (Forsman 2005: 102-128 and 153-179) anchored in social networks research (Lin 1999: 48), the concept represents an excellent normal science approach to problem solving coupled with the emergence of an academic community to develop it (Daft and Lewin 1990: 2), and furthermore, the concept is intuitive enough to be mediatisation in a world in which “new” ideas are at a premium (Thrift 1999: 33). These factors are independent of the explanatory powers of the concept and thus the concept is immune from a critique such as Fine’s (Fine 2002), which accuses the concept of a failure to explain the phenomena that academics and researchers apply it to, or the criticism that it claims to explain too much, which stretch the credibility of the concept (Woolcock 1998).

If the eight criticisms suggest reasons to be sceptical of the claims made on behalf of social capital, the most relevant question this poses for management research remains whether it offers any insight at all to the problematic sustains the interest of the field. Ben Fine responds with an unequivocal “it can only be rejected, not appropriately transformed” (Fine 2002: 799) but there is another alternative, which is to process the concept through a transparent and coherent framework, as hinted at in the description of the complex interdependencies in the social and economic institutions detailed by Mark Lyons (Lyons 2001: 161-194). This would, however, involve developing a way of translating key features of the model into tangible forms present in other academic concerns and perspectives. In this way, a more probing approach might enable engagement or exchange between social capitalists and sceptics, one directed towards the type of features that a social capital-type description must possess in order to qualify as an explanation.

The eight criticisms identified in these various blog postings are a useful counterpoint to the literature that does not critically engage in the difficult work still required in making social capital a fundamentally useful addition to the toolbox for management research. Developing a research paradigm as a corrective to the more conventionally structured approaches to social capital is a challenge, but may provide some of the social capital of the social capital approach, while presenting some of the perspectives and theories developed within the different academic fields to a new, and receptive, audience. In this way, social capital may prove to be a more enlightening force able to introduce social considerations management research deals with to explanations still driven by economic discourse.

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